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Peter Paul Rubens

When Peter Paul Rubens died on May 30th, 1640, the world mourned one of the greatest artists who ever lived. Deemed the “prince of painters and painter of princes” by one of this contemporaries, Rubens, like Leonardo and Michelangelo, was an artist who saw great success in his own lifetime.

His warm, voluptuous style was coveted by many royal patrons. On behalf of Spain, he was appointed court painter to Archduke Albert and Infanta Isabella in 1609, and continued in Isabella’s service after Albert’s death (1621), contributing not only his talent as a painter, but also his skills in diplomacy.

While he ultimately failed in his mission to broker peace between Flanders and the Dutch Republic to the north, Rubens did help to end hostilities between Spain and England, and was knighted by both King Charles I of England and King Philip IV of Spain. The artist earned the respect and patronage of each king, and completed some truly spectacular commissions for them, including nine canvases which adorned the ceiling of Charles I’s Banqueting House in London.

Peter Paul Rubens Banqueting House Ceiling

If I were ranking my favourite artists, Peter Paul Rubens most definitely secures a spot in my top 5. This Flemish Baroque painter, born June 28, 1577, was incredibly versatile in his subject matter. His vast portfolio includes Counter-Reformation altarpieces, landscapes and portraits, as well as religious, mythological and allegorical themes.

My favourite of his works is also one of my three favourite paintings:
“Daniel in the Lions’ Den” (1613-15)

Peter Paul Rubens Daniel in the Lions Den

Many artists have attempted to mimic Rubens’ unique style of painting. But as far as I’m concerned, all have failed. There is a luminous quality to the way he handles light and dark, something that transcends a mere teachable technique. It’s almost as if the subjects themselves are illuminated from the inside, rather than solely from an external light source.

Peter Paul Rubens, "Francisco Goméz de Sandoval y Rojas, Duke of Lerma" (1603)

Peter Paul Rubens, “Francisco Goméz de Sandoval y Rojas, Duke of Lerma” (1603)

Not surprisingly, Rubens travelled to Italy in 1600, and it was here that he was influenced by the masters. Studying a Rubens painting, it’s easy to see how the works of Titian, Tintoretto, Michelangelo and Da Vinci, and also more recent artists like Caravaggio, affected the young artist. While a Rubens lacks the exaggerated chiaroscuro that is the defining hallmark of a Caravaggio, that incredible luminosity his figures possess is surely the result of studying Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s technique.

“The Entombment” (1612-14) is a copy of Caravaggio’s painting of the same name from 1603-04.

Setting aside for a moment that this is, in essence, the same base design, study the body of Christ. While the two artists obviously had a different style, that quality of internal luminosity is present in both paintings. While I do prefer Caravaggio’s style, I love the way that Rubens has reworked the composition slightly to make the painting his own. He’s really captured the weight of Christ’s lifeless body here, as well as the sorrow and heaviness of the atmosphere. I always enjoy being able to compare two artists’s work this way. To see how they are the same, yet how they’re different.

Around 1611, Rubens created his 12 Apostles series of portraits for the Duke of Lerma. Each apostle painting includes some symbolic attribute to aide the viewer in determining the men’s identities. For example, Paul holds a sword and a book. Paul was a preacher of the gospel and he was beheaded with a sword. Peter is holding keys, Matthew a halberd, etc. Now, symbolism of course goes deeper than just the physical representation of some of these things, but that’s a topic for another post.

The Apostles Series is perhaps Rubens style at its most refined. The influence of Caravaggio is unmistakable.

Other exceptional works include another version of “The Entombment”, this one from 1612.

Peter Paul Rubens - The Entombment - 1612

This piece is a wonderful example of the Baroque-ness of Rubens work. The Baroque style is characterized by a certain richness, both of colour and of subject, as well as a focus on movement, atmosphere, and the depiction of emotion. Prior to the Baroque period, most art was very stiff, and scenes could be somewhat cold and sterile looking, despite what was depicted in them. Artists like Rubens achieved a beautiful flow in their work, evoking a graceful, almost languid posturing that was absent from previous classical artwork. From the drape of the cloth to the believable limpness of Christ’s body, “The Entombment” showcases the best of what Peter Paul Rubens had to offer. Despite the almost palpable somber atmosphere, the scene has a warmth to it, achieved with soft, blended brush strokes and an incredible mastery of lighting. Once again our eyes are mesmerized by the beautiful luminosity that Ruben’s paintings are revered for.

Rubens religious works are my favourites, but they certainly aren’t all that he painted.

Peter Paul Rubens, “Venus at a Mirror” (1615)

“Hercules Fighting the Nemean Lion”, “The Head of Medusa”, “The Abduction of Ganymede” and “Prometheus Bound” are all lovely examples of Rubens’ other paintings.

Unlike so many great artists of history, Rubens found himself in high demand while he was alive, and had to employ the services of assistants and collaborators in order to keep up with his heavy workload. But it is said that while much of the groundwork for paintings was done by his assistants (working from his designs), it was Rubens who always finished the pieces, infusing them with that Rubenesque life thanks to his inimitable detailing and style.

Whether illustrating important Biblical events or creating an ode to the voluptuous female form, Peter Paul Rubens is an artist whose style is truly his own. With obvious touches of Tintoretto, Caravaggio and others, Rubens took something from each one and created a gorgeously understated flamboyance that helped define an entire period in art history.

“I’m just a simple man standing alone with my old brushes, asking God for inspiration,” said Rubens. There can be no question that God granted him not only that inspiration, but also gifted him with the talent and ability to in turn share it with the rest of the world.


Note: Today’s header image is a detail of Rubens’ “The Artist and His First Wife, Isabella Brant, in the Honeysuckle Bower”, 1609-10.

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